One of the evergreen characteristics of government programs is that they are almost always rife with waste, fraud or overpaid bureaucrats – or all three. The Presidential Debate Commission is just another example.
American voters have become accustomed to seeing – or avoid seeing – the quadrennial presidential debates between the leading candidates for President – usually those of the Republican or Democratic Party. Third-party and independent candidates rarely make the cut.
The various state presidential primary debates are generally hosted by local media, civic organizations or educational institutions. Some are in the form of caucuses or state conventions run by the political parties.
But for the main event, the Presidential Debate Commission is in charge. They have been hosting them since 1987. Prior to that, the debates had been generally hosted by the League of Women Voters. For many years, the ladies of the left assumed that they had a natural right to all levels of major political debates – gubernatorial, senatorial, mayoral, and others.
I know, because I often had to wrest away the hosting of debates when I served as Executive Director of the City Club of Chicago. I successfully negotiated and hosted many of the most important debates in Illinois – gubernatorial, senatorial, and mayoral. Never handled a presidential debate, however.
In the pre-commission days, the General Election presidential debates were handled by major organizations or the news media. It was always a scramble among prospective hosts to get the candidates to agree. The rancor and accusations of bias and unfairness were one of the factors that led to the creation of the federal Commission.
I never liked the idea of federalizing the presidential debates – homogenizing the process. I thought the scramble among various stakeholders to host the debates created more of a market approach – challenging the participants to deal with a more democratic process.
Weeell … just as I feared, the Presidential Debate Commission has evolved into another one of those bureaucratic cancers on the body politic. OpenTheBooks.com – an organization that tracks the budgeting of government agencies across the spectrum — has made some observations about the Commissions 2019 budget. Keep in mind that was NOT a presidential elections year – no presidential debates. It would seem that would be a good opportunity for the Commission to hibernate – covering only the most basic survival functions – the office expenses and a skeletal crew.
But that was not the case. The Commission took in $8.7 million dollars from God knows where in 2019. And that is on top of the $7.3 million it had leftover from 2018 – which also was not a presidential election year.
Of the tax-exempt, non-profit Commission’s $8.7 million — $7.5 million is lumped into “program services.” According to the Internal Revenue Service, that line item refers to “Revenues received by an organization while charging for the services for which it received tax-exemption.”
One of those provided “services” for which the Commission receives payment was the “preparation of educational material.” I could not find who is buying all that “educational material” or why. But my cynical view of government programs makes me suspect there is some greasing of palms somewhere in those revenues.
The Commission also lists income from educating foreign governments on the management of presidential debates. Hmmmm. I wonder how that program is going with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un … and all those other autocrats? The major democracies are already handling their debates quite well.
Having negotiated a lot of debates, I would be happy to do it for expenses and a few thousand dollars. It is not all that complicated. I also wonder if this constitutes meddling in foreign elections.
But there is another issue. If the Commission is getting paid by foreign governments or foreign non-government organizations for these “services,” that may be considered a “consulting fee” and therefore taxable income.
So … in 2019, someone was paying $7.5 million for services at a time that the Commission had no need to provide any notable services to anyone. According to OpenTheBooks, the Commission even paid a consultant more than $100,000. Perhaps he was advising the Commission on what they did not have to do in 2019 – and 2017 and 2018.
Presiding over what should have been a rather idle period for the Commission is Executive Director Janet Brown – who makes a cool $561,312 yearly salary. She is another bureaucrat who gets a higher compensation than the President of the United States – about $160,000 more than the person in the Oval Office who has to run the world every day – not a couple of events every four years. I would think that the $160,000 would have been more than enough to secure a competent executive director. I would be happy to offer my services for that salary (and no snide comments about “competence”).
Yes, I know … the budget of the Commission is less than peanuts in terms of federal operations. But it is at the peanut budgeting level that so much of the waste and fraud takes place. There are a lot of peanuts in Uncle Sam’s pocket.
I also understand that once some programs come into the clutches of the Washington bureaucratic establishmentarians, they gain the closest thing to immortality. Still, if some member of Congress would like to poke around for some waste – and maybe even some fraud – the Presidential Debate Commission is an open book.
So, there ‘tis.